Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 March 2009
Most political memoirs and diaries are deeply disappointing. I know, because I’ve ploughed through hundreds of them in the past 25 years in the course of everyday political journalism and historical research.
The best – the diaries of Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Tony Benn on the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, for example – are not only essential historical sources but also enthralling. The worst are utterly worthless. I have on the bookshelf by my desk half-a-dozen bland, plodding accounts of the Thatcher years by retired ministers that have remained unopened since the week before publication when I desperately searched through their pages for something – anything – that might make a diary story.
No one has produced anything quite as bad on the Blair era – though The Blunkett Tapes ran them close. But even the most intelligent and revealing New Labour memoirs and diaries up to now have been seriously flawed. Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure was telling on many things (and included a chapter on how Labour should renew itself that bears rereading today) but Cook was restrained by his intention to make his departure only temporary, an ambition sadly thwarted by his early death. And the extracts from Alastair Campbell’s diaries published as The Blair Years, although extraordinarily revealing on quite a lot, were edited to omit anything that might be embarrassing to Gordon Brown, making them rather like Hamlet without the ghost.
All of which makes the publication of Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills a real landmark. The diaries of the former Tribune editor and soon-to-retire MP for Sunderland South are the first no-holds-barred account of life inside the Blair administration – and hunch tells me that they will become as important for future historians as the Crossman, Castle and Benn diaries.
This is not because Mullin held high office: as the book’s title makes clear, he did not. He was a junior minister in the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions from 1999 to 2001, then a slightly less junior one first in the Department for International Development and then in the Foreign Office, from which he was dropped in 2005, returning to the back benches.
But if Mullin was not a senior player, he has other things to offer. He is a great observer of people and a connoisseur of the absurdities of ministerial life: the speeches written for ministers by civil servants in impenetrable jargon, the endless futile meetings, the inability of senior ministers to delegate. He captures perfectly the tedium of the constituency MP’s existence. He is spectacularly rude – with reason – about John Prescott and Gordon Brown (but not about Tony Blair, whom he dubs “The Man”) and a perceptive analyst of what’s happening in cabinet even though he’s not there. And all of it is done in the clearest of prose with dry self-deprecating humour. I read it in a weekend and couldn’t put it down …
On a different matter entirely, I’ve been amazed by the hoo-hah in the past fortnight over the revelation in the Guardian that the historian Eric Hobsbawm had been refused access to his MI5 file.
My first thought was that it was rather mean of MI5 – the old boy is 91, and anything in his file could only relate to his activity as a member, from the mid-1930s, of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which breathed its last as long ago as 1991 – but hardly a big deal.
Others had different ideas, however. The Daily Mail went into full hate mode, denouncing Hobsbawm as an unreconstructed apologist for Stalin’s terror – and the Guardian responded with pieces arguing that the Mail was out-of-order because (a) Hobsbawm is a great historian and (b) it’s outrageous that MI5 kept files on members of the Communist Party.
There are several things that strike me as weird about this. First, I can’t see why Hobsbawm’s enduring sympathy for the Soviet Union – which is not quite the same thing as unreconstructed Stalinism, though he was certainly a Stalinist when Stalin was around – is news: he’s never made any secret of it. Secondly, I don’t understand why the fact that he is a brilliant historian should preclude criticism of his politics (or indeed of the influence his political allegiance has had on his historical work). And thirdly, I can’t grasp why it’s so outrageous that MI5 kept files on prominent members of the CP. For most of its life, after all, the party was a dedicated servant of a foreign power that had hostile intentions towards Britain (and between 1939 and 1941 was effectively allied with another foreign power that was waging war against Britain).
None of which is to defend the decision not to release the file. The cold war has been over 20 years now, and there is no excuse whatsoever for not opening the books on it – however embarrassing the results might be.